Novak Djokovic lifting La Coupe des Mousquetaires following his epic five set victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of the French Open felt like a coronation for the greatest player of all time. And coming back from the brink – two sets to love down against the inspired Greek – to prevail in the Championship match was not even his biggest achievement of the week. Taming 13-time champion Rafael Nadal in the semi-final was generally considered the finer accomplishment such was the quality of the match and the Spaniard’s dominance on clay. With 19 Grand Slam titles, Djokovic is one behind the other giants of the era, Roger Federer and Nadal himself, but with age on his side and as the only man with two Grand Slam titles across each surface, it is likely that he’ll be formally crowned the GOAT once he hangs up his racket for good. But Serena Williams, the undisputed champion of the modern women’s game, is perhaps more deserving of that crown and because of, not despite, her 23 (and counting) grand slam titles having been won over three sets.
At Twenty First Group, we believe that sport is most compelling when it consistently delivers quality, jeopardy and connection. Men’s tennis in the modern era is a fine example. The ‘big three’ are among the highest quality exponents of their craft across any sport, their catalogue of dazzling duels have kept fans on the edge of their seats for more than a decade – Nadal and Federer’s magnum opus in the 2008 Wimbledon Final perhaps stands the tallest among giants – while their success, contrasting styles and personalities have connected both them and the wider game of tennis to fans across the globe.
In contrast, the accomplishments of Williams are generally not held in such high regard despite her having won more grand slam titles (23), partly because they have been won over three sets. It is generally accepted that any comparison between her 23 grand slams and Djokovic’s 19 is not like-for-like. The usual argument, however, is that winning over 5 sets is the greater challenge, leading many to conclude that Djokovic’s 19 are actually worth more than Williams’ 23. This is simply wrong. That Williams has won 23 slams over three sets is an argument in her favour. Yes, five sets is more tennis and is therefore more tiring, but it is actually easier for the strongest players to win over longer formats.
The logic behind this is simple – the longer the match the more likely it is that the best player will triumph. This is true of any sport. Manchester City are more likely to finish above Crystal Palace in a league football season than they are to win a one-off match. More time means more opportunity for quality to prevail, limiting randomness. This means that the five set format is more predictable, with the best players more likely to win. Based on our simulations, the best player is likely to win a five set tournament around 31% of the time, relative to 23% for the best player in a three set tournament.
Given that Williams has been the strongest player at the vast majority of tournaments that she has entered, playing over five sets would have suited her. To prove this, we used our Intelligence Engine to simulate the performance of both Williams and Djokovic at every grand slam they played, but with the formats swapped (i.e. with women playing over five sets and men three). In this alternative reality, we estimate that Williams would have a total of 25.8 slams on average, while Djokovic would have only 17.1. The misconception that winning over three sets is easier acts as an inappropriate anchor on any appraisal of Williams’ and her peers’ claim to greatness.